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    Two first-year students named Rise Global Winners for 2022

    In 2019, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, launched a $1 billion philanthropic commitment to identify global talent. Part of that effort is the Rise initiative, which selects 100 young scholars, ages 15-17, from around the world who show unusual promise and a drive to serve others. This year’s cohort of 100 Rise Global Winners includes two MIT first-year students, Jacqueline Prawira and Safiya Sankari.

    Rise intentionally targets younger-aged students and focuses on identifying what the program terms “hidden brilliance” in any form, anywhere in the world, whether it be in a high school or a refugee camp. Another defining aspect of the program is that Rise winners receive sustained support — not just in secondary school, but throughout their lives.

    “We believe that the answers to the world’s toughest problems lie in the imagination of the world’s brightest minds,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, which manages Rise along with the Rhodes Trust. “Rise is an integral part of our mission to create the best, largest, and most enduring pipeline of exceptional talent globally and match it to opportunities to serve others for life.”

    The Rise program creates this enduring pipeline by providing a lifetime of benefits, including funding, programming, and mentoring opportunities. These resources can be tailored to each person as they evolve throughout their career. In addition to a four-year college scholarship, winners receive mentoring and career services; networking opportunities with other Rise recipients and partner organizations; technical equipment such as laptops or tablets; courses on topics like leadership and human-centered design; and opportunities to apply for graduate scholarships and for funding throughout their careers to support their innovative ideas, such as grants or seed money to start a social enterprise.

    Prawira and Sankari’s winning service projects focus on global sustainability and global medical access, respectively. Prawira invented a way to use upcycled fish-scale waste to absorb heavy metals in wastewater. She first started experimenting with fish-scale waste in middle school to try to find a bio-based alternative to plastic. More recently, she discovered that the calcium salts and collagen in fish scales can absorb up to 82 percent of heavy metals from water, and 91 percent if an electric current is passed through the water. Her work has global implications for treating contaminated water at wastewater plants and in developing countries.

    Prawiri published her research in 2021 and has won awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other organizations. She’s planning to major in Course 3 (materials science and engineering), perhaps with an environmentally related minor. “I believe that sustainability and solving environmental problems requires a multifaced approach,” she says. “Creating greener materials for use in our daily lives will have a major impact in solving current environmental issues.”

    For Sankari’s service project, she developed an algorithm to analyze data from electronic nano-sensor devices, or e-noses, which can detect certain diseases from a patient’s breath. The devices are calibrated to detect volatile organic compound biosignatures that are indicative of diseases like diabetes and cancer. “E-nose disease detection is much faster and cheaper than traditional methods of diagnosis, making medical care more accessible to many,” she explains. The Python-based algorithm she created can translate raw data from e-noses into a result that the user can read.

    Sankari is a lifetime member of the American Junior Academy of Science and has been a finalist in several prestigious science competitions. She is considering a major in Course 6-7 (computer science and molecular biology) at MIT and hopes to continue to explore the intersection between nanotechnology and medicine.

    While the 2022 Rise recipients share a desire to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems, their ideas and interests, as reflected by their service projects, are broad, innovative, and diverse. A winner from Belarus used bioinformatics to predict the molecular effect of a potential Alzheimer’s drug. A Romanian student created a magazine that aims to promote acceptance of transgender bodies. A Vietnamese teen created a prototype of a toothbrush that uses a nano chip to detect cancerous cells in saliva. And a recipient from the United States designed modular, tiny homes for the unhoused that are affordable and sustainable, as an alternative to homeless shelters.

    This year’s winners were selected from over 13,000 applicants from 47 countries, from Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso to Lebanon and Paraguay. The selection process includes group interviews, peer and expert review of each applicant’s service project, and formal talent assessments. More

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    MADMEC winner identifies sustainable greenhouse-cooling materials

    The winners of this year’s MADMEC competition identified a class of materials that could offer a more efficient way to keep greenhouses cool.

    After Covid-19 put the materials science competition on pause for two years, on Tuesday SmartClime, a team made up of three MIT graduate students, took home the first place, $10,000 prize.

    The team showed that a type of material that changes color in response to an electric voltage could reduce energy usage and save money if coated onto the panes of glass in greenhouses.

    “This project came out of our love of gardening,” said SmartClime team member and PhD candidate Isabella Caruso in the winning presentation. “Greenhouses let you grow things year-round, even in New England, but even greenhouse pros need to use heating furnaces in the winter and ventilation in the summer. All of that can be very labor- and energy-intensive.”

    Current options to keep greenhouses cool include traditional air conditioning units, venting and fans, and simple cloth. To develop a better solution, the team looked through scientific papers to find materials with the right climate control properties.

    Two classes of materials that looked promising were thermochromic coatings, which change color based on temperature, and electrochromic solutions, which change color based on electric voltage.

    Creating both the thermochromic and electrochromic solutions required the team to assemble nanoparticles and spin-coat them onto glass substrates. In lab tests, the electrochromic material performed well, turning a deep bluish hue to reduce the heat coming into the greenhouse while also letting in enough light for plants. Specifically, the electrochromic cell kept its test box about 1 to 3 degrees Celsius cooler than the test box coated in regular glass.

    The team estimated that greenhouse owners could make back the added costs of the electrochromic paneling through savings on other climate-control measures. Additional benefits of using the material include reducing heat-related crop losses, increasing crop yields, and reducing water requirements.

    Hosted by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), the competition was the culmination of team projects that began last spring and included a series of design challenges throughout the summer. Each team received guidance, access to equipment and labs, and up to $1,000 in funding to build and test their prototypes.

    “It’s great to be back and to have everyone here in person,” Mike Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in DMSE and coordinator of MADMEC, said at the event. “I’ve enjoyed getting back to normal, doing the design challenges over the summer and celebrating with everyone here today.”

    The second-place prize was split between YarnZ, which identified a nanofiber yarn that is more sustainable than traditional textile fibers, and WasteAway, which has developed a waste bin monitoring device that can identify the types of items thrown into trash and recycling bins and flag misplaced items.

    YarnZ (which stands for Yarns Are Really NanofiberZ), developed a nanofiber yarn that is more degradable than traditional microfiber yarns without sacrificing on performance.

    A large chunk of the waste and emissions in the clothing industry come from polyester, a slow-degrading polymer that requires an energy-intensive melt spinning process before it’s spun into the fibers of our clothes.

    “The biggest thing I want to impress upon you today is that the textile industry is a major greenhouse gas-producing entity and also produces a huge amount of waste,” YarnZ member and PhD candidate Natalie Mamrol said in the presentation.

    To replace polyester, the team developed a continuous process in which a type of nanofiber film collects in a water bath before being twisted into yarn. In subsequent tests, the nanofiber-based yarn degraded more quicky than traditional microfibers and showed comparable durability. YarnZ believes this early data should encourage others to explore nanofibers as a viable replacement in the clothing industry and to invest in scaling the approach for industrial settings.

    WasteAway’s system includes a camera that sits on top of trash bins and uses artificial intelligence to recognize items that people throw away.

    Of the 300 million tons of waste generated in the U.S. each year, more than half ends up in landfills. A lot of that waste could have been composted or recycled but was misplaced during disposal.

    “When someone throws something into the bin, our sensor detects the motion and captures an image,” explains WasteAway’s Melissa Stok, an undergraduate at MIT. “Those images are then processed by our machine-learning algorithm to find contamination.”

    Each device costs less than $30, and the team says that cost could go down as parts are bought at larger scales. The insights gleaned from the device could help waste management officials identify contaminated trash piles as well as inform education efforts by revealing common mistakes people make.

    Overall, Tarkanian believes the competition was a success not only because of the final results, but because of the experience the students got throughout the MADMEC program, which included several smaller, hands-on competitions involving laser cutters, 3-D printers, soldering irons, and other equipment many students said they had never used before.

    “They end up getting into the lab through these design challenges, which have them compete in various engineering tasks,” Tarkanian says. “It helps them get comfortable designing and prototyping, and they often end up using those tools in their research later.” More

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    New process could enable more efficient plastics recycling

    The accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans, soil, and even in our bodies is one of the major pollution issues of modern times, with over 5 billion tons disposed of so far. Despite major efforts to recycle plastic products, actually making use of that motley mix of materials has remained a challenging issue.

    A key problem is that plastics come in so many different varieties, and chemical processes for breaking them down into a form that can be reused in some way tend to be very specific to each type of plastic. Sorting the hodgepodge of waste material, from soda bottles to detergent jugs to plastic toys, is impractical at large scale. Today, much of the plastic material gathered through recycling programs ends up in landfills anyway. Surely there’s a better way.

    According to new research from MIT and elsewhere, it appears there may indeed be a much better way. A chemical process using a catalyst based on cobalt has been found to be very effective at breaking down a variety of plastics, such as polyethylene (PET) and polypropylene (PP), the two most widely produced forms of plastic, into a single product, propane. Propane can then be used as a fuel for stoves, heaters, and vehicles, or as a feedstock for the production of a wide variety of products — including new plastics, thus potentially providing at least a partial closed-loop recycling system.

    The finding is described today in the open access journal  JACS Au, in a paper by MIT professor of chemical engineering Yuriy Román-Leshkov, postdoc Guido Zichitella, and seven others at MIT, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Recycling plastics has been a thorny problem, Román-Leshkov explains, because the long-chain molecules in plastics are held together by carbon bonds, which are “very stable and difficult to break apart.” Existing techniques for breaking these bonds tend to produce a random mix of different molecules, which would then require complex refining methods to separate out into usable specific compounds. “The problem is,” he says, “there’s no way to control where in the carbon chain you break the molecule.”

    But to the surprise of the researchers, a catalyst made of a microporous material called a zeolite that contains cobalt nanoparticles can selectively break down various plastic polymer molecules and turn more than 80 percent of them into propane.

    Although zeolites are riddled with tiny pores less than a nanometer wide (corresponding to the width of the polymer chains), a logical assumption had been that there would be little interaction at all between the zeolite and the polymers. Surprisingly, however, the opposite turned out to be the case: Not only do the polymer chains enter the pores, but the synergistic work between cobalt and the acid sites in the zeolite can break the chain at the same point. That cleavage site turned out to correspond to chopping off exactly one propane molecule without generating unwanted methane, leaving the rest of the longer hydrocarbons ready to undergo the process, again and again.

    “Once you have this one compound, propane, you lessen the burden on downstream separations,” Román-Leshkov says. “That’s the essence of why we think this is quite important. We’re not only breaking the bonds, but we’re generating mainly a single product” that can be used for many different products and processes.

    The materials needed for the process, zeolites and cobalt, “are both quite cheap” and widely available, he says, although today most cobalt comes from troubled areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some new production is being developed in Canada, Cuba, and other places. The other material needed for the process is hydrogen, which today is mostly produced from fossil fuels but can easily be made other ways, including electrolysis of water using carbon-free electricity such as solar or wind power.

    The researchers tested their system on a real example of mixed recycled plastic, producing promising results. But more testing will be needed on a greater variety of mixed waste streams to determine how much fouling takes place from various contaminants in the material — such as inks, glues, and labels attached to the plastic containers, or other nonplastic materials that get mixed in with the waste — and how that affects the long-term stability of the process.

    Together with collaborators at NREL, the MIT team is also continuing to study the economics of the system, and analyzing how it can fit into today’s systems for handling plastic and mixed waste streams. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” Román-Leshkov says, but preliminary analysis looks promising.

    The research team included Amani Ebrahim and Simone Bare at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Jie Zhu, Anna Brenner, Griffin Drake and Julie Rorrer at MIT; and Greg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), and Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), as part of the the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE) Consortium. More

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    Cracking the carbon removal challenge

    By most measures, MIT chemical engineering spinoff Verdox has been enjoying an exceptional year. The carbon capture and removal startup, launched in 2019, announced $80 million in funding in February from a group of investors that included Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Then, in April — after recognition as one of the year’s top energy pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance — the company and partner Carbfix won a $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal milestone award. This was the first round in the Musk Foundation’s four-year, $100 million-competition, the largest prize offered in history.

    “While our core technology has been validated by the significant improvement of performance metrics, this external recognition further verifies our vision,” says Sahag Voskian SM ’15, PhD ’19, co-founder and chief technology officer at Verdox. “It shows that the path we’ve chosen is the right one.”

    The search for viable carbon capture technologies has intensified in recent years, as scientific models show with increasing certainty that any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change means limiting CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million by 2100. Alternative energies will only get humankind so far, and a vast removal of CO2 will be an important tool in the race to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

    Voskian began developing the company’s cost-effective and scalable technology for carbon capture in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “It feels exciting to see ideas move from the lab to potential commercial production,” says Hatton, a co-founder of the company and scientific advisor, adding that Verdox has speedily overcome the initial technical hiccups encountered by many early phase companies. “This recognition enhances the credibility of what we’re doing, and really validates our approach.”

    At the heart of this approach is technology Voskian describes as “elegant and efficient.” Most attempts to grab carbon from an exhaust flow or from air itself require a great deal of energy. Voskian and Hatton came up with a design whose electrochemistry makes carbon capture appear nearly effortless. Their invention is a kind of battery: conductive electrodes coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which has a natural chemical attraction to carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and no affinity for CO2 when these conditions are relaxed. When activated by a low-level electrical current, the battery charges, reacting with passing molecules of CO2 and pulling them onto its surface. Once the battery becomes saturated, the CO2 can be released with a flip of voltage as a pure gas stream.

    “We showed that our technology works in a wide range of CO2 concentrations, from the 20 percent or higher found in cement and steel industry exhaust streams, down to the very diffuse 0.04 percent in air itself,” says Hatton. Climate change science suggests that removing CO2 directly from air “is an important component of the whole mitigation strategy,” he adds.

    “This was an academic breakthrough,” says Brian Baynes PhD ’04, CEO and co-founder of Verdox. Baynes, a chemical engineering alumnus and a former associate of Hatton’s, has many startups to his name, and a history as a venture capitalist and mentor to young entrepreneurs. When he first encountered Hatton and Voskian’s research in 2018, he was “impressed that their technology showed it could reduce energy consumption for certain kinds of carbon capture by 70 percent compared to other technologies,” he says. “I was encouraged and impressed by this low-energy footprint, and recommended that they start a company.”

    Neither Hatton nor Voskian had commercialized a product before, so they asked Baynes to help them get going. “I normally decline these requests, because the costs are generally greater than the upside,” Baynes says. “But this innovation had the potential to move the needle on climate change, and I saw it as a rare opportunity.”

    The Verdox team has no illusions about the challenge ahead. “The scale of the problem is enormous,” says Voskian. “Our technology must be in a position to capture mega- and gigatons of CO2 from air and emission sources.” Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the world must remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

    To scale up successfully and at a pace that could meet the world’s climate challenge, Verdox must become “a business that works in a technoeconomic sense,” as Baynes puts it. This means, for instance, ensuring its carbon capture system offers clear and competitive cost benefits when deployed. Not a problem, says Voskian: “Our technology, because it uses electric energy, can be easily integrated into the grid, working with solar and wind on a plug-and-play basis.” The Verdox team believes their carbon footprint will beat that of competitors by orders of magnitude.

    The company is pushing past a series of technical obstacles as it ramps up: enabling the carbon capture battery to run hundreds of thousands of cycles before its performance wanes, and enhancing the polyanthraquinone chemistry so that the device is even more selective for CO2.

    After hurtling past critical milestones, Verdox is now working with its first announced commercial client: Norwegian aluminum company Hydro, which aims to eliminate CO2 from the exhaust of its smelters as it transitions to zero-carbon production.

    Verdox is also developing systems that can efficiently pull CO2 out of ambient air. “We’re designing units that would look like rows and rows of big fans that bring the air into boxes containing our batteries,” he says. Such approaches might prove especially useful in locations such as airfields, where there are higher-than-normal concentrations of CO2 emissions present.

    All this captured carbon needs to go somewhere. With XPRIZE partner Carbfix, which has a decade-old, proven method for mineralizing captured CO2 and depositing it in deep underground caverns, Verdox will have a final resting place for CO2 that cannot immediately be reused for industrial applications such as new fuels or construction materials.

    With its clients and partners, the team appears well-positioned for the next round of the carbon removal XPRIZE competition, which will award up to $50 million to the group that best demonstrates a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, and can present a viable blueprint for scaling to gigatons of removal per year.

    Can Verdox meaningfully reduce the planet’s growing CO2 burden? Voskian is sure of it. “Going at our current momentum, and seeing the world embrace carbon capture, this is the right path forward,” he says. “With our partners, deploying manufacturing facilities on a global scale, we will make a dent in the problem in our lifetime.” More

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    SMART Innovation Center awarded five-year NRF grant for new deep tech ventures

    The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore has announced a five-year grant awarded to the SMART Innovation Center (SMART IC) by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) as part of its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan. The SMART IC plays a key role in accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore and will channel the grant toward refining and commercializing developments in the field of deep technologies through financial support and training.

    Singapore has recently expanded its innovation ecosystem to hone deep technologies to solve complex problems in areas of pivotal importance. While there has been increased support for deep tech here, with investments in deep tech startups surging from $324 million in 2020 to $861 million in 2021, startups of this nature tend to take a longer time to scale, get acquired, or get publicly listed due to increased time, labor, and capital needed. By providing researchers with financial and strategic support from the early stages of their research and development, the SMART IC hopes to accelerate this process and help bring new and disruptive technologies to the market.

    “SMART’s Innovation Center prides itself as being one of the key drivers of research and innovation, by identifying and nurturing emerging technologies and accelerating them towards commercialization,” says Howard Califano, director of SMART IC. “With the support of the NRF, we look forward to another five years of further growing the ecosystem by ensuring an environment where research — and research funds — are properly directed to what the market and society need. This is how we will be able to solve problems faster and more efficiently, and ensure that value is generated from scientific research.”

    Set up in 2009 by MIT and funded by the NRF, the SMART IC furthers SMART’s goals by nurturing promising and innovative technologies that faculty and research teams in Singapore are working on. Some emerging technologies include, but are not limited to, biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations.

    Having trained over 300 postdocs since its inception, the SMART IC has supported the launch of 55 companies that have created over 3,300 jobs. Some of these companies were spearheaded by SMART’s interdisciplinary research groups, including biotech companies Theonys and Thrixen, autonomous vehicle software company nuTonomy, and integrated circuit company New Silicon. During the RIE 2020 period, 66 Ignition Grants and 69 Innovation Grants were awarded to SMART’s researchers, as well as faculty at other Singapore universities and research institutes.

    The following four programs are open to researchers from education and research facilities, as well as institutes of higher learning, in Singapore:

    Innovation Grant 2.0: The enhanced SMART Innovation Center’s flagship program, the Innovation Grant 2.0, is a gated three-phase program focused on enabling scientist-entrepreneurs to launch a successful venture, with training and intense monitoring across all phases. This grant program can provide up to $800,000 Singaporean dollars and is open to all areas of deep technology (engineering, artificial intelligence, biomedical, new materials, etc). The first grant call for the Innovation Grant 2.0 is open through Oct. 15. Researchers, scientists, and engineers at Singapore’s public institutions of higher learning, research centers, public hospitals, and medical research centers — especially those working on disruptive technologies with commercial potential — are invited to apply for the Innovation Grant 2.0.

    I2START Grant: In collaboration with SMART, the National Health Innovation Center Singapore, and Enterprise Singapore, this novel integrated program will develop master classes on venture building, with a focus on medical devices, diagnostics, and medical technologies. The grant amount is up to S$1,350,000. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    STDR Stream 2: The Singapore Therapeutics Development Review (STDR) program is jointly operated by SMART, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the Experimental Drug Development Center. The grant is available in two phases, a pre-pilot phase of S$100,000 and a Pilot phase of S$830,000, with a potential combined total of up to S$930,000. The next STDR Pre-Pilot grant call will open on Sept. 15.

    Central Gap Fund: The SMART IC is an Innovation and Enterprise Office under the NRF’s Central Gap Fund. This program helps projects that have already received an Innovation 2.0, STDR Stream 2, or I2START Grant but require additional funding to bridge to seed or Series A funding, with possible funding of up to S$5 million. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    The SMART IC will also continue developing robust entrepreneurship mentorship programs and regular industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community.

    “SMART, through the Innovation Center, is honored to be able to help researchers take these revolutionary technologies to the marketplace, where they can contribute to the economy and society. The projects we fund are commercialized in Singapore, ensuring that the local economy is the first to benefit,” says Eugene Fitzgerald, chief executive officer and director of SMART, and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

    SMART was established by MIT and the NRF in 2007 and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for cutting-edge research of interest to both parties. SMART is the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five Interdisciplinary Research Groups: Antimicrobial Resistance, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The SMART IC was set up by MIT and the NRF in 2009. It identifies and nurtures a broad range of emerging technologies including but not limited to biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations, and accelerates them toward commercialization. The SMART IC runs a rigorous grant system that identifies and funds promising projects to help them de-risk their technologies, conduct proof-of-concept experiments, and determine go-to-market strategies. It also prides itself on robust entrepreneurship boot camps and mentorship, and frequent industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community. SMART’s Innovation grant program is the only scheme that is open to all institutes of higher learning and research institutes across Singapore. More

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    A simple way to significantly increase lifetimes of fuel cells and other devices

    In research that could jump-start work on a range of technologies including fuel cells, which are key to storing solar and wind energy, MIT researchers have found a relatively simple way to increase the lifetimes of these devices: changing the pH of the system.

    Fuel and electrolysis cells made of materials known as solid metal oxides are of interest for several reasons. For example, in the electrolysis mode, they are very efficient at converting electricity from a renewable source into a storable fuel like hydrogen or methane that can be used in the fuel cell mode to generate electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. They can also be made without using costly metals like platinum. However, their commercial viability has been hampered, in part, because they degrade over time. Metal atoms seeping from the interconnects used to construct banks of fuel/electrolysis cells slowly poison the devices.

    “What we’ve been able to demonstrate is that we can not only reverse that degradation, but actually enhance the performance above the initial value by controlling the acidity of the air-electrode interface,” says Harry L. Tuller, the R.P. Simmons Professor of Ceramics and Electronic Materials in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).

    The research, initially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management’s (FECM) National Energy Technology Laboratory, should help the department meet its goal of significantly cutting the degradation rate of solid oxide fuel cells by 2035 to 2050.

    “Extending the lifetime of solid oxide fuels cells helps deliver the low-cost, high-efficiency hydrogen production and power generation needed for a clean energy future,” says Robert Schrecengost, acting director of FECM’s Division of Hydrogen with Carbon Management. “The department applauds these advancements to mature and ultimately commercialize these technologies so that we can provide clean and reliable energy for the American people.”

    “I’ve been working in this area my whole professional life, and what I’ve seen until now is mostly incremental improvements,” says Tuller, who was recently named a 2022 Materials Research Society Fellow for his career-long work in solid-state chemistry and electrochemistry. “People are normally satisfied with seeing improvements by factors of tens-of-percent. So, actually seeing much larger improvements and, as importantly, identifying the source of the problem and the means to work around it, issues that we’ve been struggling with for all these decades, is remarkable.”

    Says James M. LeBeau, the John Chipman Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, who was also involved in the research, “This work is important because it could overcome [some] of the limitations that have prevented the widespread use of solid oxide fuel cells. Additionally, the basic concept can be applied to many other materials used for applications in the energy-related field.”

    A report describing the work was reported Aug. 11, in Energy & Environmental Science. Additional authors of the paper are Han Gil Seo, a DMSE postdoc; Anna Staerz, formerly a DMSE postdoc, now at Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) Belgium and soon to join the Colorado School of Mines faculty; Dennis S. Kim, a DMSE postdoc; Dino Klotz, a DMSE visiting scientist, now at Zurich Instruments; Michael Xu, a DMSE graduate student; and Clement Nicollet, formerly a DMSE postdoc, now at the Université de Nantes. Seo and Staerz contributed equally to the work.

    Changing the acidity

    A fuel/electrolysis cell has three principal parts: two electrodes (a cathode and anode) separated by an electrolyte. In the electrolysis mode, electricity from, say, the wind, can be used to generate storable fuel like methane or hydrogen. On the other hand, in the reverse fuel cell reaction, that storable fuel can be used to create electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.

    A working fuel/electrolysis cell is composed of many individual cells that are stacked together and connected by steel metal interconnects that include the element chrome to keep the metal from oxidizing. But “it turns out that at the high temperatures that these cells run, some of that chrome evaporates and migrates to the interface between the cathode and the electrolyte, poisoning the oxygen incorporation reaction,” Tuller says. After a certain point, the efficiency of the cell has dropped to a point where it is not worth operating any longer.

    “So if you can extend the life of the fuel/electrolysis cell by slowing down this process, or ideally reversing it, you could go a long way towards making it practical,” Tuller says.

    The team showed that you can do both by controlling the acidity of the cathode surface. They also explained what is happening.

    To achieve their results, the team coated the fuel/electrolysis cell cathode with lithium oxide, a compound that changes the relative acidity of the surface from being acidic to being more basic. “After adding a small amount of lithium, we were able to recover the initial performance of a poisoned cell,” Tuller says. When the engineers added even more lithium, the performance improved far beyond the initial value. “We saw improvements of three to four orders of magnitude in the key oxygen reduction reaction rate and attribute the change to populating the surface of the electrode with electrons needed to drive the oxygen incorporation reaction.”

    The engineers went on to explain what is happening by observing the material at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, with state-of-the-art transmission electron microscopy and electron energy loss spectroscopy at MIT.nano. “We were interested in understanding the distribution of the different chemical additives [chromium and lithium oxide] on the surface,” says LeBeau.

    They found that the lithium oxide effectively dissolves the chromium to form a glassy material that no longer serves to degrade the cathode performance.

    Applications for sensors, catalysts, and more

    Many technologies like fuel cells are based on the ability of the oxide solids to rapidly breathe oxygen in and out of their crystalline structures, Tuller says. The MIT work essentially shows how to recover — and speed up — that ability by changing the surface acidity. As a result, the engineers are optimistic that the work could be applied to other technologies including, for example, sensors, catalysts, and oxygen permeation-based reactors.

    The team is also exploring the effect of acidity on systems poisoned by different elements, like silica.

    Concludes Tuller: “As is often the case in science, you stumble across something and notice an important trend that was not appreciated previously. Then you test that concept further, and you discover that it is really very fundamental.”

    In addition to the DOE, this work was also funded by the National Research Foundation of Korea, the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering via Tuller’s appointment as the R.P. Simmons Professor of Ceramics and Electronic Materials, and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. More

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    New hardware offers faster computation for artificial intelligence, with much less energy

    As scientists push the boundaries of machine learning, the amount of time, energy, and money required to train increasingly complex neural network models is skyrocketing. A new area of artificial intelligence called analog deep learning promises faster computation with a fraction of the energy usage.

    Programmable resistors are the key building blocks in analog deep learning, just like transistors are the core elements for digital processors. By repeating arrays of programmable resistors in complex layers, researchers can create a network of analog artificial “neurons” and “synapses” that execute computations just like a digital neural network. This network can then be trained to achieve complex AI tasks like image recognition and natural language processing.

    A multidisciplinary team of MIT researchers set out to push the speed limits of a type of human-made analog synapse that they had previously developed. They utilized a practical inorganic material in the fabrication process that enables their devices to run 1 million times faster than previous versions, which is also about 1 million times faster than the synapses in the human brain.

    Moreover, this inorganic material also makes the resistor extremely energy-efficient. Unlike materials used in the earlier version of their device, the new material is compatible with silicon fabrication techniques. This change has enabled fabricating devices at the nanometer scale and could pave the way for integration into commercial computing hardware for deep-learning applications.

    “With that key insight, and the very powerful nanofabrication techniques we have at MIT.nano, we have been able to put these pieces together and demonstrate that these devices are intrinsically very fast and operate with reasonable voltages,” says senior author Jesús A. del Alamo, the Donner Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “This work has really put these devices at a point where they now look really promising for future applications.”

    “The working mechanism of the device is electrochemical insertion of the smallest ion, the proton, into an insulating oxide to modulate its electronic conductivity. Because we are working with very thin devices, we could accelerate the motion of this ion by using a strong electric field, and push these ionic devices to the nanosecond operation regime,” explains senior author Bilge Yildiz, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

    “The action potential in biological cells rises and falls with a timescale of milliseconds, since the voltage difference of about 0.1 volt is constrained by the stability of water,” says senior author Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering, “Here we apply up to 10 volts across a special solid glass film of nanoscale thickness that conducts protons, without permanently damaging it. And the stronger the field, the faster the ionic devices.”

    These programmable resistors vastly increase the speed at which a neural network is trained, while drastically reducing the cost and energy to perform that training. This could help scientists develop deep learning models much more quickly, which could then be applied in uses like self-driving cars, fraud detection, or medical image analysis.

    “Once you have an analog processor, you will no longer be training networks everyone else is working on. You will be training networks with unprecedented complexities that no one else can afford to, and therefore vastly outperform them all. In other words, this is not a faster car, this is a spacecraft,” adds lead author and MIT postdoc Murat Onen.

    Co-authors include Frances M. Ross, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; postdocs Nicolas Emond and Baoming Wang; and Difei Zhang, an EECS graduate student. The research is published today in Science.

    Accelerating deep learning

    Analog deep learning is faster and more energy-efficient than its digital counterpart for two main reasons. “First, computation is performed in memory, so enormous loads of data are not transferred back and forth from memory to a processor.” Analog processors also conduct operations in parallel. If the matrix size expands, an analog processor doesn’t need more time to complete new operations because all computation occurs simultaneously.

    The key element of MIT’s new analog processor technology is known as a protonic programmable resistor. These resistors, which are measured in nanometers (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter), are arranged in an array, like a chess board.

    In the human brain, learning happens due to the strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons, called synapses. Deep neural networks have long adopted this strategy, where the network weights are programmed through training algorithms. In the case of this new processor, increasing and decreasing the electrical conductance of protonic resistors enables analog machine learning.

    The conductance is controlled by the movement of protons. To increase the conductance, more protons are pushed into a channel in the resistor, while to decrease conductance protons are taken out. This is accomplished using an electrolyte (similar to that of a battery) that conducts protons but blocks electrons.

    To develop a super-fast and highly energy efficient programmable protonic resistor, the researchers looked to different materials for the electrolyte. While other devices used organic compounds, Onen focused on inorganic phosphosilicate glass (PSG).

    PSG is basically silicon dioxide, which is the powdery desiccant material found in tiny bags that come in the box with new furniture to remove moisture. It is studied as a proton conductor under humidified conditions for fuel cells. It is also the most well-known oxide used in silicon processing. To make PSG, a tiny bit of phosphorus is added to the silicon to give it special characteristics for proton conduction.

    Onen hypothesized that an optimized PSG could have a high proton conductivity at room temperature without the need for water, which would make it an ideal solid electrolyte for this application. He was right.

    Surprising speed

    PSG enables ultrafast proton movement because it contains a multitude of nanometer-sized pores whose surfaces provide paths for proton diffusion. It can also withstand very strong, pulsed electric fields. This is critical, Onen explains, because applying more voltage to the device enables protons to move at blinding speeds.

    “The speed certainly was surprising. Normally, we would not apply such extreme fields across devices, in order to not turn them into ash. But instead, protons ended up shuttling at immense speeds across the device stack, specifically a million times faster compared to what we had before. And this movement doesn’t damage anything, thanks to the small size and low mass of protons. It is almost like teleporting,” he says.

    “The nanosecond timescale means we are close to the ballistic or even quantum tunneling regime for the proton, under such an extreme field,” adds Li.

    Because the protons don’t damage the material, the resistor can run for millions of cycles without breaking down. This new electrolyte enabled a programmable protonic resistor that is a million times faster than their previous device and can operate effectively at room temperature, which is important for incorporating it into computing hardware.

    Thanks to the insulating properties of PSG, almost no electric current passes through the material as protons move. This makes the device extremely energy efficient, Onen adds.

    Now that they have demonstrated the effectiveness of these programmable resistors, the researchers plan to reengineer them for high-volume manufacturing, says del Alamo. Then they can study the properties of resistor arrays and scale them up so they can be embedded into systems.

    At the same time, they plan to study the materials to remove bottlenecks that limit the voltage that is required to efficiently transfer the protons to, through, and from the electrolyte.

    “Another exciting direction that these ionic devices can enable is energy-efficient hardware to emulate the neural circuits and synaptic plasticity rules that are deduced in neuroscience, beyond analog deep neural networks. We have already started such a collaboration with neuroscience, supported by the MIT Quest for Intelligence,” adds Yildiz.

    “The collaboration that we have is going to be essential to innovate in the future. The path forward is still going to be very challenging, but at the same time it is very exciting,” del Alamo says.

    “Intercalation reactions such as those found in lithium-ion batteries have been explored extensively for memory devices. This work demonstrates that proton-based memory devices deliver impressive and surprising switching speed and endurance,” says William Chueh, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, who was not involved with this research. “It lays the foundation for a new class of memory devices for powering deep learning algorithms.”

    “This work demonstrates a significant breakthrough in biologically inspired resistive-memory devices. These all-solid-state protonic devices are based on exquisite atomic-scale control of protons, similar to biological synapses but at orders of magnitude faster rates,” says Elizabeth Dickey, the Teddy & Wilton Hawkins Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved with this work. “I commend the interdisciplinary MIT team for this exciting development, which will enable future-generation computational devices.”

    This research is funded, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Explained: Why perovskites could take solar cells to new heights

    Perovskites hold promise for creating solar panels that could be easily deposited onto most surfaces, including flexible and textured ones. These materials would also be lightweight, cheap to produce, and as efficient as today’s leading photovoltaic materials, which are mainly silicon. They’re the subject of increasing research and investment, but companies looking to harness their potential do have to address some remaining hurdles before perovskite-based solar cells can be commercially competitive.

    The term perovskite refers not to a specific material, like silicon or cadmium telluride, other leading contenders in the photovoltaic realm, but to a whole family of compounds. The perovskite family of solar materials is named for its structural similarity to a mineral called perovskite, which was discovered in 1839 and named after Russian mineralogist L.A. Perovski.

    The original mineral perovskite, which is calcium titanium oxide (CaTiO3), has a distinctive crystal configuration. It has a three-part structure, whose components have come to be labeled A, B and X, in which lattices of the different components are interlaced. The family of perovskites consists of the many possible combinations of elements or molecules that can occupy each of the three components and form a structure similar to that of the original perovskite itself. (Some researchers even bend the rules a little by naming other crystal structures with similar elements “perovskites,” although this is frowned upon by crystallographers.)

    “You can mix and match atoms and molecules into the structure, with some limits. For instance, if you try to stuff a molecule that’s too big into the structure, you’ll distort it. Eventually you might cause the 3D crystal to separate into a 2D layered structure, or lose ordered structure entirely,” says Tonio Buonassisi, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and director of the Photovoltaics Research Laboratory. “Perovskites are highly tunable, like a build-your-own-adventure type of crystal structure,” he says.

    That structure of interlaced lattices consists of ions or charged molecules, two of them (A and B) positively charged and the other one (X) negatively charged. The A and B ions are typically of quite different sizes, with the A being larger. 

    Within the overall category of perovskites, there are a number of types, including metal oxide perovskites, which have found applications in catalysis and in energy storage and conversion, such as in fuel cells and metal-air batteries. But a main focus of research activity for more than a decade has been on lead halide perovskites, according to Buonassisi says.

    Within that category, there is still a legion of possibilities, and labs around the world are racing through the tedious work of trying to find the variations that show the best performance in efficiency, cost, and durability — which has so far been the most challenging of the three.

    Many teams have also focused on variations that eliminate the use of lead, to avoid its environmental impact. Buonassisi notes, however, that “consistently over time, the lead-based devices continue to improve in their performance, and none of the other compositions got close in terms of electronic performance.” Work continues on exploring alternatives, but for now none can compete with the lead halide versions.

    One of the great advantages perovskites offer is their great tolerance of defects in the structure, he says. Unlike silicon, which requires extremely high purity to function well in electronic devices, perovskites can function well even with numerous imperfections and impurities.

    Searching for promising new candidate compositions for perovskites is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but recently researchers have come up with a machine-learning system that can greatly streamline this process. This new approach could lead to a much faster development of new alternatives, says Buonassisi, who was a co-author of that research.

    While perovskites continue to show great promise, and several companies are already gearing up to begin some commercial production, durability remains the biggest obstacle they face. While silicon solar panels retain up to 90 percent of their power output after 25 years, perovskites degrade much faster. Great progress has been made — initial samples lasted only a few hours, then weeks or months, but newer formulations have usable lifetimes of up to a few years, suitable for some applications where longevity is not essential.

    From a research perspective, Buonassisi says, one advantage of perovskites is that they are relatively easy to make in the lab — the chemical constituents assemble readily. But that’s also their downside: “The material goes together very easily at room temperature,” he says, “but it also comes apart very easily at room temperature. Easy come, easy go!”

    To deal with that issue, most researchers are focused on using various kinds of protective materials to encapsulate the perovskite, protecting it from exposure to air and moisture. But others are studying the exact mechanisms that lead to that degradation, in hopes of finding formulations or treatments that are more inherently robust. A key finding is that a process called autocatalysis is largely to blame for the breakdown.

    In autocatalysis, as soon as one part of the material starts to degrade, its reaction products act as catalysts to start degrading the neighboring parts of the structure, and a runaway reaction gets underway. A similar problem existed in the early research on some other electronic materials, such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), and was eventually solved by adding additional purification steps to the raw materials, so a similar solution may be found in the case of perovskites, Buonassisi suggests.

    Buonassisi and his co-researchers recently completed a study showing that once perovskites reach a usable lifetime of at least a decade, thanks to their much lower initial cost that would be sufficient to make them economically viable as a substitute for silicon in large, utility-scale solar farms.

    Overall, progress in the development of perovskites has been impressive and encouraging, he says. With just a few years of work, it has already achieved efficiencies comparable to levels that cadmium telluride (CdTe), “which has been around for much longer, is still struggling to achieve,” he says. “The ease with which these higher performances are reached in this new material are almost stupefying.” Comparing the amount of research time spent to achieve a 1 percent improvement in efficiency, he says, the progress on perovskites has been somewhere between 100 and 1000 times faster than that on CdTe. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so exciting,” he says. More